Moving Pictures
Apr 17, 2024, 06:29AM

Whose Side is it Anyway?

Alex Garland’s Civil War is incoherent, stupid, self-serious, and worst of all, boring.

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There’s one really cool moment in Civil War: right when it starts. Before the A24 logo shows up, a series of short bursts of radio static ping pong across the theater’s surround sound system. It made me think how rare that was in any Hollywood movie, and most American independents. A24 isn’t a major studio, but Civil War is their biggest production yet, budgeted at $50 million, heavily marketed, and playing everywhere. It was shot over two years ago, and previewed last April—who knows why the wait, because there’s nothing to sift through here. Once the movie gets going it gets really boring really fast. But those dry bursts of radio static moving across speakers made you aware of the room in a way that I haven’t seen in a film since The Image Book.

And that’s as interesting as it gets. Garland’s film lacks any surprises or innovations after that A24 card comes up. Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, and Stephen McKinley Henderson play a quartet of war journalists covering the fall of America. Garland never spells out what our civil war is about, who started it, why, when, or how; he doesn’t even leave any clues, and those that he does drop in (“The Antifa Massacre”) are laughable. Nick Offerman plays the Trumpian president, but even his agenda and his administration are kept in the dark. He vaguely recalls Trump, and all of his militia supporters (including Jesse Plemons in one of the movie’s sort of decent scenes) are drawn as MAGA white supremacists. Plemons grills our leads and a few others on “what kind of American” they are. When one of them says “Hong Kong,” Plemons shoots him immediately, issuing a staccato “CHI-NAH!” just like Trump.

My friend Dave suggested that Garland conned A24 into financing a film about war journalists only to stage “a summary execution of Trump” in a bombed-out Washington D.C. The ending, like the scene with Plemons, suggests a better movie, but Garland’s crippled by his humorlessness and lack of self-awareness. Civil War doesn’t have a funny bone in its body, and it’s so morbidly self-serious that you just check out 10 minutes in. All of those “[x] miles to Washington D.C.” cards were as laughable as “[x] miles away from the United States of America” in Team America: World Police. That movie had so much more to say about war, right-wing Americans, and the media—all while being funny and entertaining.

Garland doesn’t have to be a comedian, but he should be smarter, or at least more complicated. As it stands, he’s a mediocrity, and as “well-made” as Civil War is—the movie is in focus, the sound is synced, the performances are as strong as they can be given this script—it’s an empty shell, a useless object that doesn’t work as satire, as an action movie, or as high-minded cinema art in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick. Lately, Jonathan Glazer is the guy getting all the Kubrick comparisons, which is always ridiculous, but at least Glazer is an interesting filmmaker with a couple of really good films (Birth, Under the Skin). Garland has nothing to say, and worse, doesn’t know or doesn’t care to entertain his audience. He recently announced he’s retired from directing. Sayonara, dumbass.

—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter and Instagram: @nickyotissmith


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